Have you ever marveled at the beauty of the language in the Declaration of Independence? The Gettysburg Address?
Philosophizing and writing were common indulgences in 18th and 19th century America. Granted, literacy rates were low but ideas were in the air and newspapers were read aloud in cafés and discussed at family dinners.
The literature that informed those conversations included scrolls of ancient Egypt, transcriptions of rules of law from The Ottoman Empire and the works of Plato and Socrates, et al. Conversations with the Chief of the Iroquois Nation made their way into the mix.
Early on, a Harvard Education was a liberal education. It was education for it’s own sake, not preparation for employment. A ‘man of letters’ was a well-read man*.
In 1909, Charles Elliot, then President of Harvard, noted that a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. In line with his objective to educate all that were so inclined, he selected worthy works, built a collection and sold it to the public.
Today, this collection can be bought for around $300 on eBay. Not bad for an education that is, in my view, better than the education offered at most American Universities today. This education plunks one right down into a context designed to help us think, to inspire us to write, to make us laugh and to make us cry. One cannot work their way through this collection without ‘picking up IQ points,’ and reconsidering everything modern in relation to our very human nature.
So, my recommendation? Do a search on eBay for Harvard Classics, also known as Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf. You’ll find selected books, partial collections and perhaps a complete collection of the first 51 volumes. I have to say, if you do, I’m happy for you. I don’t own the collection. When I learned of it, I already had some of the selections in my own library. I do however, peek at the list of works included and keep it in mind as I browse local library book sales.
* I am using the traditional all-inclusive term ‘man’ here folks as, English grammar works. Efforts to restructure language to conform to a contemporary agenda will necessarily be short-lived. My two cents? Don’t bother to conform. Just speak from the heart.